By Neil Faulkner

Pluto Press. 272 pages. £12.99.  ISBN 978-0-7453-9903-4

Reviewed by Jim Burns

It’s inevitable that this year will see a flood of books about the Russian Revolution. What happened in St Petersburg, Moscow, and elsewhere in 1917 was a significant moment in history. Events there shaped the nature of our world for the next 70 years, and are still having an impact on our lives. No matter what one’s political leanings are, it’s impossible to ignore the historical importance of what happened as Russia almost fell apart in 1917.

There are, of course, a variety of ways in which the Revolution can be approached, and the existing literature on the subject already offers a wide range of them. Neil Faulkner, in his book, claims to be writing history from below, in other words largely playing down the roles taken by leaders such as Lenin and Trotsky, and instead focusing on what happened on the streets and in meetings of factory committees and the like. His contention is that ordinary people led the way in terms of going beyond the sometimes nervous and hesitant actions of certain senior Bolsheviks, and took the struggle to the streets, where they subverted the soldiers sent to suppress them, fought the police, and generally paved the way for Lenin, Trotsky, and others to overthrow the Provisional Government and take control. It was, he says, “An explosion of democracy and activity from below”.

It has to be said that Faulkner’s narrative is written from a Trotskyist point of view, and he openly admits it: “I cannot claim originality because Trotsky has been my guide throughout”. And he makes his own position quite clear in these words:

“I find a lot of contemporary discussion about how we should reconfigure the world – about what a post-capitalist world will be like – wearisome. I suspect a lot of it amounts to little more than a retreat into utopian fantasy among activists daunted by capital and the state. I suspect it is a way of avoiding facing up to the real political task of building mass movements on the scale necessary to take on the rich, the banks, and the corporations”.

Faulkner provides a brisk outline of the situation in Russia prior to 1914. Still a backward country in many ways, there had been attempts to modernise in terms of railways, factory production, and finance. But there remained a vast bureaucracy, an autocratic system of government, large landowners with a vested interest in not wanting radical changes, and numerous poor peasants who, if no longer classed as serfs,  lived like them, not owning any land and still beholden to their old masters in many ways. The growing numbers of industrial workers in urban areas were hardly any better off and lived in squalid conditions. The Tsar held sway over the people, especially the uneducated peasants, with a mixture of mysticism and harsh social control. There is a photograph of him appearing before troops with a religious icon in his hand. The soldiers are kneeling with their heads bowed.

Throughout the 19th century there had been unsuccessful attempts at overthrowing the Tsar, or at least pushing the authorities into instituting reforms. And in 1905 there was the famous incident at the Winter Palace when a peaceful crowd, demonstrating for food and better conditions, was fired on by the army. Faulkner says that the exact number of deaths is unknown, but that it was probably more than a thousand. Strikes in protest at the massacre soon followed in the factories in St Petersburg. By 1905 there were stirrings of what might be termed an organised opposition, and socialist, anarchist, and other agitators were active in large urban centres.

According to Faulkner, “It was the young Leon Trotsky, almost alone among Russian revolutionaries, who grasped the full implications of 1905”. The possibilities were there: “Only the proletariat had the potential to lead the revolution. Only mass strikes in the cities could detonate peasant revolt”, and “the proletariat would have to establish a workers’ state. Any such state, being class-bound, could not be other than an organ of proletarian interests – supporting workers’ control of the factories, peasant control of the land, and the dispossession of the rich”.

It was the First World War that provided the circumstances in which a revolution could take place. The Russian Army, though large, was badly equipped, badly trained, and badly officered. As the war progressed, its deficiencies became more and more obvious, and by 1917 conditions at the front were such that desertions and near-mutinies were rife. Meanwhile, in St Petersburg, civilians were protesting about rationing and related matters, with women playing leading roles in the demonstrations. Food shortages were among the main grievances.

I think it’s at this point that Faulkner’s writing takes on a great deal of vitality and colour. His fast-moving accounts of strikes and street-fighting vividly evoke the changing situation as the authorities struggled to maintain control. The comments he quotes on the activities of the police are interesting:

“The police never go over to the crowd. They are recruited from the most backwards sections of the working-class. Their role is to defend the property and power of the rich against threats from below. Their daily work is a matter of hostile collisions with activists, workers, and the poor. Their hatred of the oppressed is reinforced by what is nowadays called `canteen culture’. So they become a hardened reactionary caste, immunised against any appeal for solidarity by a psychic armour of indifference and prejudice. In revolution, the police cannot be won over; they have to be physically confronted and routed”.

If that was true of the police, it was a different case with the army. Trotsky stressed how important it was to persuade soldiers to ally themselves with the demonstrators and strikers: “the fate of every revolution at a certain point is decided by a break in the disposition of the army. Against a numerous, disciplined, well-armed, and ably led military force, unarmed or almost unarmed masses of the people cannot possibly gain a victory”.

Luckily for the people on the streets of St Petersburg, much of the army was not disciplined nor ably led, and its ranks had activists who could easily influence how a unit would react when given an order to act against demonstrators. There were also soldiers in the city who had deserted and brought their weapons with them. Faulkner, writing about the movements of one regiment, says: “Some officers and the training battalion tried to bar the way from Vyborg to the city centre, but other soldiers of the regiment joined the workers in a brief exchange of fire. Soon the whole regiment simply dissolved into the crowd, the soldiers helping to hunt down the police, break into the arsenals, and find arms for the workers”.

Once it became clear that the Tsar had been overthrown, a new government was formed, though Faulkner points out that, at this stage (February, 1917) it was composed of “landlords, industrialists, and right-wing professors”. In fact, this body had little real power, and the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies could over-rule it. Matters drifted on through the summer months, with Kerensky attempting to round-up the Bolsheviks and other militants. There was also a plan for the right-wing General Kornilov to march on St Petersburg with ostensibly “loyal” troops, but it quickly fell through

When matters came to a head in October, 1917, the Bolshevik take-over seemed relatively easy to achieve. Trotsky was the chief organiser of the insurrection. The Provisional Government ministers were arrested, Kerensky fled, and Lenin announced, “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order”. But not everyone was happy with the Bolsheviks dominating in a new government.

If it had seemed fairly straightforward to gain power, the problems facing the new rulers in Russia were daunting. The war with Germany was still continuing, the economy was a shambles, food was in short supply, and law and order had broken down. It was necessary to agree to peace terms with Germany, though at the cost of losing territory. An army had to be organised to face the Whites (right-wing militarists and their supporters who strove to defeat the Bolsheviks) and oppose interventionist forces sent by Britain, France, and the USA.

Hopes of a supportive general European rising were dashed when revolutions in Germany and Hungary were brutally suppressed. The German Army had not collapsed, and efficiently moved against the left-wing units made up of armed workers, some sailors, and a handful of professional revolutionaries. Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht were killed by members of the Freikorp, units composed of ex-soldiers, bitter because they considered they had been stabbed in the back while in the trenches on the Western Front by anti-war demonstrators and left-wing activists at home.

I suppose the basic details of what took place after 1917 are well-known enough to not need re-stating here, though they may well be open to different interpretations of what happened and why. War Communism, NEP (New Economic Policy), the struggle to bring the peasants into line, and then the rise of a new bureaucracy, Stalin’s road to the top. Faulkner moves quickly through it all while insisting that Lenin and Trotsky might have taken Russia in a different direction. Lenin died in the early-1920s, and Trotsky was outwitted by Stalin who had quietly built up a power-base among the rising tide of opportunists and careerists who had joined the Party and were ousting the original Bolsheviks. As Faulkner puts it: “The revolutionary veterans were soon swamped by post-October recruits, many joining because it was the only way to get a job and earn a living……the new recruits were fair-weather friends of the regime, careerists rather than idealists, happy to go with the flow, unwilling to challenge the leadership”. Ideal Stalinists, in fact.

Would it have been different had Lenin Lived and Trotsky been around? I suspect that a vast bureaucracy would still have arisen, and that opportunists and careerists would have moved in to form a new breed of managers, “conscious of themselves as a group with common interests and shared goals”. It’s unlikely that Lenin or Trotsky could have stopped this happening, though neither of them, unlike Stalin, would have developed a relationship with the bureaucrats to further their own aims and ambitions. Or would they? We simply don’t know how they would have reacted in certain circumstances. The same could be true of their ruthlessness, given situations which may have demanded it. Trotsky responded firmly when the Kronstadt rebellion broke out, and it was during Lenin’s time in control that the notorious Cheka was formed. As someone said, power corrupts.

I have to admit that I’m always wary of accounts of uprisings, revolutions, and any other situation which involves large groups of people taking to the streets. Did they all have the same concerns? And I’m particularly suspicious of accounts which seem to suggest that they all supported the Bolsheviks or any other political party. Most people will strike or demonstrate for specific demands. An increase in pay, shorter hours, a reduction in the price of a staple food, a guarantee of the availability of bread. It strikes me that intellectuals who think they know what “the masses” (a term they love to use) are like or want, really have little contact with people generally.

A People’s History of the Russian Revolution is lively, sometimes contentious, and very readable.